Lloyd Kaufman is a staunch defender of American independent cinema. He's also the guy who, with business partner Michael Herz, co-directed The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High. As the co-founder of the now-40-year-old Troma Entertainment, Kaufman produces, distributes, and directs no-brow comedies about, for, and by a new generation of juvenile delinquents like South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn. This month, Kaufman's latest film, Return to Nuke 'Em High Vol. 1, had its New York premiere at the Museum of Modern Art. The Village Voice talked to Kaufman about too much urination, stoner-friendly kids' shows, and the Toxic Avenger's Christ-like qualities.
How did you sneak into MOMA?
They liked [Return to Nuke 'Em High Vol. 1], I guess! I keep wondering if they've got me mixed up with Charlie Kaufman. But I do believe that both Return to Nuke 'Em High films will be, when completed, my Sistine Chapel. This recognition may be because of Troma's 40th anniversary. But I've been making movies in New York since 1968. It's nice to get this recognition. When I was five years old, my mother put me in the art class at MOMA, so I spent a lot of family-time there.
You usually rank Troma's War as your favorite Troma film, right after Tromeo and Juliet and Toxic Avenger. How do contemporary Troma fans respond to [Troma's War]?
I believe Troma's War is one of Troma's best movies, but Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead is a much better film, and I certainly like both Return to Nuke 'Em High films better — Toxic Avenger IV: Citizen Toxie … Terror Firmer! Troma's War is a very underrated movie, and it got totally fucked by the MPAA. Richard Heffner, who just made a noise like a frog and was president of the MPAA, told Michael Herz over the phone that our movie stunk. The MPAA is not supposed to do that, and they disemboweled our movie. They took out punches and jokes and things that were perfectly acceptable in movies like Die Hard. I think Heffner's words were, “No fuckin' good,” or something. It was very unpleasant.
Our violence is, as you know, cartoon violence. That movie followed The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High, so we had built up some steam. But the only way we could get into movie theaters in 1986 was with an R rating. And the film was cut down to something like a G-rated movie. I'm very bitter about it; I hope Dr. Heffner burns in hell, quite frankly. And I don't like to speak ill of the dead, but the nerve, the arrogance, the hubris of his comments! There are very few movies studios that have lasted and remained independent for a long time. And the MPAA is one of the reasons.
Moviegoers generally can't distinguish independent or exploitation films from mainstream films. On Netflix Instant, if you search “Troma,” the first two options are Troma films, and the third is Tora, Tora, Tora. And Michael Haneke used footage from The Toxic Avenger in his film Benny's Video as an example of typical Hollywood filmmaking. Is that a basic literacy failure on his part, or a victory for Troma?
[laughs] I have no idea. That's insane. Troma now has brand-name appeal. Troma and Disney have name-brand recognition. People don't go to see a Paramount movie, I don't think; people don't go see a Warner Brothers movie; they go see a Leonardo DiCaprio movie. But people go to see a Troma movie because it's a Troma movie. So when the MPAA unfairly censored Troma's War, they totally ruined us. Our fans were pissed off at us! They don't know the MPAA fucked it up. They think we tried to sell out.
Troma has had a lot of alumni infiltrating big corporations, like James Gunn. Pretend you're a proud mother showing off embarrassing baby pictures of your favorite son. What can you tell us about some of his rookie mistakes?
[I spent five years writing Tromeo and Juliet, but he solved it! We co-wrote it together, but most of the dark brilliance of that screenplay is James Gunn. James came to us through a friend, and he wanted to be a novelist, not a screenwriter. I gave him what he had written, and gave him $100.
Oh wow, how generous. Well, it was back in 1996; $150 was worth $150, back in those days. The only thing I remember is … he put a lot of urination scenes in it. Too much of that. Other than that, I think he did a great job. It was his idea to put in the line, “What light through yonder plexiglass breaks?” That set up a stunt with plexiglass that almost blew me up. They used too much dynamite, or whatever they use for stunts like that.
Speaking of too much blowing up, almost all of the movies that you either directed or co-directed since Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD recycle that one car crash. When did that stop being a good way to save money, and start being an inside joke?
When the fans asked for it. The first time may have been with Tromeo and Juliet. And then with Citizen Toxie, we weren't planning to use it, but we had a big sequence with a car chase, and we decided it would save us a lot of anguish if we re-used that shot. Only problem was that Kabukiman has a clown running around that movie on a unicycle. So with Citizen Toxie, we had to write in a clown on a unicycle. [laughs] Somehow, when we started editing the movie, we managed to edit, to cut the clown out. Now the fans are waiting for it. And wait till [Return to Nuke 'Em High Vol. 2] comes out; there's a major riff on that whole thing.
You know, Bertolt Brecht is a big inspiration, and Andy Warhol. I don't think they ever met, but they both broke the fourth wall a lot, and I like that stuff. So I think the running gag with the car flip works on various levels. When I was at Yale, I hung a bit with the Warhol gang. I used some of his superstar types in early movies. I can't say I had any conversations with him, but I did pass him at Max's Kansas City. But I was a big fan of his movies.
In the past, you've said that the “stew” of influences on The Toxic Avenger includes Silent Spring, Mondo Cane, Hail the Conquering Hero, and The Power Elite. What were some of Poultrygeist's influences? That seems like your most incensed film since Troma's War.
The same influences have persisted throughout my career: Stan Brakhage, Warhol, John Ford, Chaplin. Toxie's blind girlfriend is straight out of City Lights. And Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels; the school for the blind in [Toxic Avenger Part II], that's from Sullivan's Travels. Most of what influenced me were classic American movies. I like Renoir a lot; I like Fritz Lang's American movies. In fact, I tried to re-enact the first shot of The Big Heat in Terror Firmer, where the guy blows his brains. I failed. But it still happens in Terror Firmer! I made it goofy, of course.
That suggests that there are certain things people expect from a Troma movie. I want to talk about a movie you made before there was such a thing as a Troma movie. It's a movie that you joked was “The worst thing to happen to the Jews since Mein Kampf“: Big Gus, What's the Fuss? It's never been officially released on DVD or home video except as an Easter egg, but it is on Tromavideos' official YouTube Channel under a “Directed by Lloyd Kaufman” playlist. Have you watched this thing recently?
[laughs] I can't look at it. It's so horrible. The Israelis that helped make this film were crooks. They never gave us the negative back, they never gave us statements — not that the film was worth anything. We had a beaten-up 16mm print, and we had a list of synagogues and Jewish organizations, and we got one reply back, one rental. The guy sent back a really nasty letter – he hated it! I think it was somewhere in the Midwest. The lesson for Big Gus for young people is: Don't listen to anybody. We got lots of advice on that film from older, more experienced people. But the film stunk; it's a disgrace. What you saw was made from a half-inch video that somebody from Israel brought to us. I went to Israel on 1974 on my honeymoon to try to get the film back, but I just got a lot of double-talk. The movie opened in Tel Aviv, but it opened the week of the Seven-Day War. So bombs were raining down outside, but we had a bomb inside the movie theater.
Some of Troma's acquisitions have developed a life of their own in spite of — or maybe because of – their negative reputation. For example, Fatty Drives the Bus has become something of a secret handshake among the Troma faithful.
That's a great movie! It's just very hard to get attention. Look at the money they spent on this little movie – a wonderful film – Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon. It was terrific. I'm sure they spent a couple million making the movie, and a couple million trying to sell it. But it went nowhere, and that's a great movie. I guess whoever was selling it chickened out, and it still has ads all over the place. The movie cartel basically brainwashes the public. We're supposed to think that this three-hour Martin Scorsese film is supposed to be good. And Anchorman 2. That guy was everywhere: every newspaper, every Twitter – it was on my Twitter! I didn't ask for it to be on my Twitter. So how is Fatty Drives the Bus, a wonderful film … We lost money on it. We have no money, that's the problem.
We can't get any traction. You're the only major publication interested in the 40th anniversary of Troma. The New York Times is busy sucking the teat of the major studios. They twist themselves into a pretzel when Kumar and Schmumar Go to White Castle Part III. They say, “Oh, the farts are such a statement about American culture! It's such great satire!” It's bullshit. Troma paved the road for farts! But we don't exist. In Russia, they used to kill people. Then they got a little nicer, and all they'd do is take away people's passports. That's where we are.
Another project that never took off: What the hell were you guys thinking when you made Doggie Tales?
One of the people who worked for us, his significant other worked at this dog daycare center. He convinced Michael and me to make this. It didn't turn out to be very successful. But did you notice who did the voices? James Gunn.
Wasn't that Trey Parker?
I forget. But there's also Jenna Fischer. And, by the way, when we go to horror conventions or fantasy conventions, the stoners love Doggie Tales. We can't keep it in stock. And the little kiddies, the five-year-old crowd, they love that show. I have so much positive reinforcement from parents about kids that watched Doggie Tails. But perhaps because it came from the loins of Troma, people assumed it was not appropriate for young people.
There's a lot of singing in your films, and also a surprising number of people crying out to God in anguish. But since this is a Troma film, those prayers seem rhetorical. If you're the authorial God of these films, what kind of God are you: Old or New Testament?
[laughs] I'm Jesus. I forgive, I think he was the best. I love Jesus, though I'm a Jewish person. But that's why Toxie's a unique superhero. He's upset, but he doesn't want to kill people. His Tromatons are programmed to destroy evil, so he can't help it. I believe in the Golden Rule, so I think I'm more New Testament.